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Interview with Dennis Knight, November 17, 2016

Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia
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00:00:37 - Early Life

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Partial Transcript: Dennis, as I said, you're probably the only ecologist I've known from South Dakota. Are you the only one you've known from South Dakota as well? And tell me about your origin. What was life there as you grew up in South Dakota?

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes growing up in Clear Lake, a small rural town in South Dakota and his appreciation of the nearby glacial moraines and prairie potholes while hunting and fishing. He mentions how the beauty of the birds he killed prompted him to take up taxidermy. Knight talks about how his curiosity about why Clear Lake was not clear caused him to learn the history of the lake and discover that erosion had made the lake muddy. He talks about his involvement with sports and music. He describes how his first role model was his high school coach who also taught biology. Knight talks about his involvement with Boy Scouts and the importance of a Boy Scout canoe trip to the Boundary Waters that furthered his interest in wilderness areas.

Keywords: Northwestern School of Taxidermy; duck hunting; ecologists; gas station; native vegetation; parents; peasant hunting; prairie grasses; waterfall hunting

00:08:15 - Augustana College

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Partial Transcript: I know you went to Augustana College. What lead you to Augustana?

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes the influence of Sven Froiland, the department head of biology, on his decision to attend Augustana college in 1955. Knight talks about the appeal of a taxidermy job that Froiland offered him where he would shoot birds and prepare their skins for a new ornithology class. He discusses the mentorship of Sven Froiland who was a botanist and naturalist and Will Rosine who was an invertebrate zoologist. Knight describes his appreciation of the field trips that Froiland and Rosine took students on.

Keywords: Eugene Odum; Fundamentals of Ecology; Lutheran; Sioux Falls; ecology; field trips; field work; liberal arts college

00:14:39 - Evolution of ecological interests and connection to Boundary Waters

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Partial Transcript: Now your initial interest in, uh, nature was really, really revolved around birds, and then you started working with plants and vegetation. How did that come about?

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes the shift in his interests from birds to vegetation. He discusses watching birds with the region's leading ornithologist, Herb Krause. Knight talks about his job leading Boy Scout canoe trips in the Boundary Waters at Quetico Provincial Park over the summer. He describes how his decision to conduct research during his canoe trips prompted him to study vegetation because he could not stay in one place long enough to study birds. He discusses his use of the Quetico-Superior Wilderness Research Center on Basswood Lake for his research on the area's plants. He talks about working with the center's director, Cliff Ahlgren, in the summer of 1959 before he attended graduate school. Knight discusses his emotional connection to the Boundary Waters due to the clean water, forests, and lack of roads. He talks about his continued fascination with the area and the numerous canoe trips that he has gone on in the Boundary Waters over the course of his life.

Keywords: canoe guide; ecology; football; voyagers; wilderness

Subjects: canoe guide; ecology; football; voyagers; wilderness

00:25:07 - Decision to attend graduate school

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Partial Transcript: Well lets go back, uh. Now, you were at Augustana. You were a biology major. You started developing an interest in plants and vegetation. There must have been a critical point there in which you decided to go graduate school...

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes how his experience as an undergraduate teaching assistance at Augustana College made him want to become a biology professor instead of pursuing wildlife management which he also enjoyed. He talks about the influence Fairfield Osborn's book Our Plundered Planet. He mentions the column of the local Soil Conservation Service agent that he read in the Clear Lake newspaper as a child. He also describes discovering Pierre Dansereau’ book, Biogeography, which sparked his interest in ecology. He summarizes his decision to attend graduate school as a result of his experience as a teaching assistant, his discovery that it was possible to make a living taking students outdoors, various ecology books, role-models, his independent research project in the Boundary Waters, and financial assistance in the form of a teaching assistantship. Knight talks about the impact of reading papers on Great Lakes forests written by John Curtis, Grant Cottam, Robert McIntosh, and Roger Bray on his decision to attend the University of Wisconsin. He also describes his love of Wisconsin's landscape.

Keywords: Madison; bird watching; farming; soil erosion; wind erosion

00:35:25 - John Curtis and Orie Loucks

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Partial Transcript: Did you start at Wisconsin assigned to a mentor?

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes his work with John Curtis, his first adviser, on the structural, functional characteristics of plants--now called trait-based community analysis. He talks about the shift in Curtis's career from plant physiology to plant community ecology. Knight talks about working with Orie Loucks, who became his adviser after Curtis's death. He discusses the highlights of Loucks' career including his research on gradient analysis through a scalar approach and his contribution to banning DDT in Wisconsin.

Keywords: Grant Cottam; Silent Spring; University of Wisconsin; Wisconsin Arboretum; ecosystem; pollution; upland vegetation

00:51:09 - Daubenmire-Curtis debate and the evolution of the ESA

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Partial Transcript: Did you have a sense of how the ecological perspective of Wisconsin might be different from that of other leading plant ecology programs in the country?

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes the debate about the nature of the plant community which was lead by Rexford F. Daubenmire at Washington State University and John Curtis at the University of Wisconsin. He discusses how Daubenmire argued that competitive exclusion created abrupt boundaries in the environment while Curtis asserted that abrupt environmental boundaries were only created by sharp changes in the environment itself. Knight goes on to talk about how he became involved in the Ecological Society of America (ESA) as a graduate student in order to network with others in the field. He reflects on the changes in the ESA, describing how it currently much larger than when he first got involved.

Keywords: Chicago; Stillwater, Oklahoma; graduate school; plant ecology; scientific debate; university campuses

00:56:37 - Research and Peace Corps in Latin America

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Partial Transcript: Well, I need to say that I, uh, I finished my master's thesis which was on prairie vegetation, structural functional analysis of prairie and then I did my dissertation on forests, but right in between...

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes his introduction to tropical ecology when he went to Panama in the summer of 1961 with herpetologists Owen Sexton and Harold Heatwole. He talks about continuing his study of the tropics with short-term work in Costa Rica and on Barro Colorado Island (run by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). Knight describes how he met prominent tropical ecologist, Leslie Holdridge who became his mentor after first being critical of Knight's work. He discusses how he returned to Wisconsin to finish his PhD before going back to Latin America with the Peace Corps to teach ecology and botany at the University of Loja in Ecuador. He describes how the impact of his experience in the tropics enabled him to compare tropical ecology to the temperate ecology back in Wisconsin.

Keywords: Amazon; Galapagos Island; Korean War; Luther College; Vietnam War; convergent evolution; draft; post-doc; sampling; vegetation

01:10:17 - Move to University of Wyoming

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Partial Transcript: So then there must have been a, uh, another round of looking for new careers.

Segment Synopsis: Knight talks about joining the faculty of the University of Wyoming in 1966 after hearing about the job from a friend. He describes continuing his research on tropical ecology on Barro Colorado Island which led to a paper in the Ecological Monographs journal on the phytosociology of a species-rich tropical forest. He discusses his decision to move away from tropical ecology and do research closer to home with the Grassland Biome of the International Biological Program (IBP) at the Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado. He describes becoming increasing interested in ecosystem ecology at the IBP. Knight talks about how he drifted away from the IBP to do work in Wyoming with Rocky Mountain coniferous forest ecology and management, studying the impact of forest fires and clearcutting on the ecology of natural areas.

Keywords: George Van Dyne; Gerald “Jerry” Lang; Kimball Harper; Yellowstone National Park; lodgepole pine forests

01:19:31 - Work with students

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Partial Transcript: Let me interrupt for a minute. You said "students working down there." Did the botany department at University of Wyoming have a master's graduate program at that time?

Segment Synopsis: Knight talks about how the University of Wyoming introduced a PhD program in botany in the mid-1970s after only having a master's level program. He describes the difficulty of doing research while managing heavy course loads. Knight talks about the work of his first PhD student, William H. “Bill” Romme, on the fire history in Yellowstone National Park. Knight mentions working with Romme on a paper about the landscape diversity and shifting mosaic steady states in wildland landscapes. He describes working on manipulative experiments in the Medicine Bow National Forest where he researched water and nutrients through a stand-level approach, which led to new methods, including modeling. Knight talks about comparing natural disturbances such as fires, bark beetles, and wind to that of timber harvesting. He describes wondering about the timber industry's impact due to removing large tree boles from the forest when historically every square foot of the forest had a tree growing on it or a log lying over it.

Keywords: Biolife; Daniel Tinker; Jim Reynolds; Joe Yavitt; John Pearson; Linda Wallace; Rocky Mountains; Tim Fahey; biomass; coarse woody debris; ecology; general biology; hydrology; large-diameter wood; lodgepole pine forests; timber harvesting; watershed

01:34:21 - 1988 Yellowstone Fires and Mountains and Plains: The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes

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Partial Transcript: You mentioned, uh--with respect to Bill Romme's work--the 1988 fire in uh--or groups of fires--in Yellowstone National Park...

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes his limited involvement in the assessment of the impacts of the 1988 Yellowstone fires while on the advisory committee for the investigation. He talks about how his enjoyment of synthesizing the ecological literature in a way that was accessible by the general public motivated him to write Mountains and Plains: The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes. He talks about his enjoyment of his vegetation ecology class and states that teaching was his greatest contribution to ecology as a science. He describes his decision to publish a second edition of Mountains and Plains in order to include the effects of climate change, habitat fragmentation, and sage grouse as a threatened species.

Keywords: Bill Reiners; George Jones; ecological literacy; land management; sabbatical leave

01:43:08 - Ecological Society of America (ESA)

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Partial Transcript: Now we have been talking about, recently, your career with respect to teaching and some of your contributions to our understanding of nature, but you became more seriously engaged in Ecological Society of America activities to the extent of becoming president...

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes attending ESA meetings with students, but he says that he did not really become involved until George Woodwell asked him to be ESA Program Chair. He talks about becoming vice-president and finally becoming president from 1989 to 1990. He states that he considers his paper in the Bulletin (1991, the essence of his past-presidents address) one of his best despite the fact that it has not been frequently cited. He also describes his involvement in the ESA's Public Affairs Committee due to his desire to improve the general public's ecological literacy. He talks about joining the ESA Historical Records Committee to plan the organization's centennial in 2015. Knight describes the changes in the ESA during his involvement, including an increase in members and a more competitive grant application process.

Keywords: American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS); ESA 75th anniversary; Indiana University; Penn State University

01:53:53 - Evolution of ecology

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Partial Transcript: Do you feel like, uh, the progress of ecology which, lets call it understanding nature from an ecological point of view, the biology--biological interactions with nature, is, uh, robust as it was in other times during your career?

Segment Synopsis: Knight describes his increased selectivity in what ecological research he follows, emphasizing applicable research that involves issues like climate change and habitat fragmentation. He mentions that he hopes ecology is as robust as it used to be, but states that he does not really know if that is the case. Knight describes changes in his own career as he shifted from studying visible characteristics of ecosystems like vegetation to invisible characteristics like nutrient composition. He talks about how the scale of ecological research has increased even if the concepts stay the same. He states that ecologists now study entire landscapes instead of smaller areas through the single-stand approach.

Keywords: Ecological Society of America (ESA); fundamentals; natural history

01:59:15 - Recent work and career highlights

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Partial Transcript: Uh, well, what are you doing these days?

Segment Synopsis: Knight talks about his involvement on the Board of Trustees for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the Governing Council of the Wyoming Wilderness Association (WWA). He describes his current collaboration with W. Carter Johnson on the ecology of Dakota landscapes. He summarizes the fondest memories of his career as working with graduate students, teaching and leading field trips in Wyoming, working with great colleagues (including team-teaching an ecosystem course with William (Bill) Reiner), and being in a profession that enabled him to travel. Knight comments on the importance of role models, mentors, good advising, and good colleagues. He mentions how ecology is changing in positive ways and becoming more collaborative. He talks about the increased accuracy of the media and the positive affect of new methods of communication and information technology. He also mentions the existence of a greater variety of ecology journals which enables more researchers to become published.

Keywords: Mountains and Plains: The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes; agro-ecosystem; collaboration; diversity; funding; multiple authors; plains; preservation; roadless areas; vegetation ecology